I’m not afraid. I’m not discouraged. As I prepare to lead conversations on bridge building and racial reconciliation, my heart weeps, though it is filled with joy. Despite the atrocities, disparities and the many Dylanns of the world, I find hope in our Savior. Yet I have to ask, “How do we prevent this from happening in the future? How many lives must be lost before we each take a hard look into our hearts?”
Where does one learn to be a racist? At what point do we allow the mindset of hate into our hearts? We are not born with hate. We are taught to hate. Children learn hate. They can sense hate in our voices and demeanor. They learn it from our conversations. Racism can be passed down for generations in a family or community. Racism stains the soul, suffocating the spirit. It comes in opposition to the gospel.
For our students, racism often starts very young. They learn it from their families or peers. It begins with the little, subtle, private conversations. Eventually, the hate of another race group takes you out of the will of God. Unaddressed hate can begin to poison our souls, bits and pieces at a time.
Youth pastors, we need to lead the conversation about racism. As youth leaders, we have influence. It is our job to help students navigate the culture in which they live. We must teach against racism. We must talk about the role hate has played in our society. We must navigate the tensions in our country.
How Do We Talk to Students About Racism?
Hate and God’s love cannot coexist. How do we help students understand what it means to live into God’s love, to love others despite their skin color?
Teach students that all people are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Every human being is an image bearer of God. We are all different but equally loved by the Father. We are Imago Dei, the shadow or the likeness of God. How we treat each other is a reflection of how we view and treat God. Being created in the image of God provides us with divine uniqueness. We are spiritual beings, created to worship God. Our personhood reflects the aspects of God. Our lives have significance before God. We are accountable to God for our actions. We all must be treated equally. The more you teach students this truth, the more they will live it out in their lives.
Help students understand that the cross and racism cannot coexist. It’s important that we don’t paint broad strokes. We must be clear about sin. The cross is a representation of life, grace, redemption and hope. Hate represents depravity, ignorance and hopelessness. When Jesus was on the cross, He prayed for His enemies. He prayed for the people who put Him on the cross. Love requires us to pray for those in need of salvation. We never are to accept hatred and evil. You choose to embrace one or the other. Show your students how to embrace love and reject racism. Teach your students the gift of confession and surrender. I’ve learned that as students are presented with truth, their hearts respond.
Teach students that prejudice and racism are wrong. It’s important to teach teens that both are sin issues. Racism involves a structure and system of domination based on race based on the belief that one race is superior to another. Prejudice is the prejudging of a person based on limited facts. Many understand that racism and prejudice are wrong, but they don’t see how harmful these attitudes are. We pretend to live in a colorblind word. We need to be color-brave. Teach teens to appreciate differences and the diversity God has created in all of us. When we refuse to talk about issues of race, we miss opportunities to discuss, guide and interpret the perspective of the world in which we live.
Lead by example. Your greatest opportunity to teach truth is through the way you live. As a youth leader, I’ve weathered some amazing storms and hurts. My responses to challenges are critical. We are in the midst of many racial tensions in our country. We can’t be silent about the racial unrest or racial injustices in Charleston or any other city in our nation. Our students have access to social media and news outlets the same as you. How are your students processing what they hear? Do they see the problem? How are we teaching our students to respond? Are we ignoring the tensions and acting as if they don’t exist? Teens are looking to be lead. Don’t allow the media to be the leading force in your teens’ lives. Teach them what the Bible says, letting it transform their hearts. Preach Jesus, but don’t pretend as if the cultural tensions don’t exist. Use examples as application opportunities. Racial conflicts can affect your youth group directly. Don’t ignore them.
Expose students to racial diversity. One of the biggest tensions we face is racial division. Sadly, Sunday continues to be the most segregated time of the week. Create opportunities to invite guest youth leaders, musicians and speakers who look different from the members of your congregation. It’s important for students to see people of color in leadership roles. Often the only exposure teens have to a different race is through mission trips. Think outside the box about how you can change that narrative. At our church, we partnered with other churches for events. One year, my church hosted a joint community event. It was a mix of cultures. The students had a great time. You would be surprised at what a little Cupid Shuffle and Cha-Cha slide can do to promote unity and cohesion.
Encourage diverse friendships. We all tend to feel more comfortable around people who resemble us or have similar experiences. We miss out on the diversity God has created in people when we box our friendships into little categories of “like me.” We learn most about each other when we are in relationship. Having friends from various ethnicities teaches us empathy and diminishes stereotypes. Who are your students getting to know outside their own races? Is your youth group divided by race? Do all the minority students sit together? Do all kids feel welcome, known and loved in your youth group? Sometimes simply asking questions or creating experiences in which kids can voice their concerns is helpful. Develop creative ways to break the racial monotony.
Use national news headlines as examples. I remember talking to a student a few years ago about a controversial topic. As we talked, she said, “I know how the world feels. I know how my friends feel…I’m interested in knowing what God says about it.” Help your students process current national conversations. Teach them to apply Scripture to current situations.
Racism only has as much power as we allow it to have. If we want to see change in the next generation, we must lead our students into change. We have the opportunity to create a different vision of peace, love and justice than the generations before us. It will take courage and boldness. It will take the willingness to become uncomfortable, awkward and messy. You will be challenged in your belief systems, but it’s worth it. The opposite of love is not hate but fear. Racism is a product of hate and fear of the unknown, but hate doesn’t have to win. Don’t let it.
Tasha Morrison is a bridge builder, reconciler, fellow abolitionist and compelling voice in the fight for racial justice. She has developed an untamed passion for social justice issues across the globe. Tasha encourages racial reconciliation among all ethnicities, promotes racial unity in America, and helps develop others to do the same. She seldom finds anyone who talks more than her.